Iowa Caucuses: What to Watch for Monday Night

Iowa Caucuses: What to Watch for Monday Night
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In 1975, an obscure former one-term Southern governor using the countrified name “Jimmy” set his sights on a goal so audacious he initially wouldn’t utter the word “president”—even to his own wife.

James Earl Carter was no hayseed, though. A hyper-competitive Naval Academy grad and former submarine captain, he was actually a savvy political operator. He’d figured out a couple of things that Democratic Party heavyweights had not. The first was that after Richard Nixon’s presidency the American people were looking for someone they could trust more than someone with a traditional political résumé. When the biggest newspaper in his home state of Georgia spoofed his bid with the headline “Jimmy Who?,” Carter figured he had the advantage of surprise.

Second, Carter knew that some caucus states started choosing delegates before the much-hyped New Hampshire primary. He figured that if he made noise in one of them, he could upend the party establishment.

So in February 1975, he and aide Jody Powell drove from Nebraska to a little town just north of Sioux City, Iowa, to speak at a testimonial for a retiring county clerk. Carter was not the local Democrats’ first choice, but he got his opportunity and he took it. “I will never tell a lie,” he told the audience. They loved him for that.

Jimmy Carter rode that good first impression all the way to the White House. That is why, for the ensuing four decades, a long litany of Democrats and Republicans have traipsed into the same state hoping to catch the perfect wave. On Monday Iowans will impart their collective heartland wisdom to the rest of us. Here are seven factors to consider as the results roll in Monday night.

Iowa Republicans Have a Poor Track Record

Remember the presidency of Rick Santorum? President Mike Huckabee? No? Well, they won the 2012 and 2008 Republican caucuses. These results were not aberrant. In 1988, Iowa Republicans chose Bob Dole first and placed televangelist Pat Robertson second. Vice President George H.W. Bush, the eventual nominee (and the next president) finished third with only 19 percent of the vote.

Bush 41 did once win Iowa—but in 1980, the year of the Reagan Revolution. That’s right: The state didn’t even go for Ronald Reagan. New Hampshire elected officials look at these results and recite their mantra: “Iowa picks corn. New Hampshire picks presidents.” The point here is that even if Donald Trump and Ted Cruz run one-two Monday night, that’s only Round 1.

Iowa Democrats Have a Better Track Record

Eight years ago Barack Obama served notice to Hillary Clinton that he was someone to be reckoned with by winning Iowa. Hawkeye State Democrats have picked eventual nominees Obama, John Kerry, Al Gore, Walter Mondale, and Carter.

This is why Bernie Sanders, who decided late in the game that he’s actually running for president and not merely nudging the Democratic Party leftward, is now really running hard in Iowa. He wants to do to Hillary Clinton the same thing Barack Obama did there in 2008—and hopes for the same eventual outcome. Iowa Democrats do not cast protests vote—they believe they are choosing a president. But if the tight contest between Sanders and Clinton is important to each camp, it’s more important to Sanders. With her ability to raise unlimited amounts of money and her organizational strength in every region, Clinton can afford to lose Iowa. Sanders cannot.

Is Marco Rubio Peaking at the Right Time?

Newspaper endorsements in political campaigns are—to use the old Raymond Chandler phrase—about as useful today as “spats at an Iowa picnic.” The exception may be the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s biggest newspaper, which endorsed the Florida senator last week (as well as Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side).

Rubio has been bolstered by two other unofficial endorsements. The first came from the state’s dynamic freshman senator, Joni Ernst. The state’s most popular Republican, Gov. Terry Branstad, stayed neutral, but he made an exception when giving an “anti-endorsement” to Cruz, who has emerged as Rubio’s main Iowa rival.

Another dynamic working in Rubio’s favor: No one expects him to win—or even come in second. If he runs either one or two, it’s a huge upset. But he’s in the enviable position of being able to gain momentum with a third-place finish, especially if he’s close to the winners.

Was Thursday Night’s Debate a Factor?

Trump’s decision to skip the last debate upped the ante—for him and for Ted Cruz. If Cruz overtakes Trump, whom he trails slightly in the polls, will the story line be that The Donald cowered from the specter of Fox News anchorwoman Megyn Kelly? If Trump wins in Iowa, however, he’ll crow that he took on big bad Fox—only bolstering the Trump mystique.

Without The Donald on stage, both the moderators and the other candidates had a clearer shot at Cruz—and took it. If one of those who finally got airtime because Trump wasn’t sucking the oxygen out of the room catches on at the very end, Trump might have helped engineer his own ultimate defeat.

What Happens to the Also-Rans?

Among the Democrats, would there be a rationale for Martin O’Malley to continue if, say, he finishes with only 5 percent of the vote? On the Republican side, if Santorum and Huckabee finish in single digits they will likely conclude they have no path to the nomination. A similar dilemma would await Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina.

If Fiorina finishes up the track—and still stays in—it could be a signal that her real goal is the vice presidency. John Kasich will probably stick around for New Hampshire, whatever happens in Iowa.

Do Iowans Have a “January Surprise” for Us? Four years ago, Santorum was floundering near the bottom of the pack in single digits in late December.

Two weeks later, a surging Santorum caught front-runner Mitt Romney at the wire and stayed on his heels until spring, when he finally ran out of money and momentum. Is there a Santorum out there this time?

Will Outsiders Sweep the Day? Suppose Trump and Cruz finish one-two on the Republican side, and Sanders rides his populist “Bernie-mentum” to victory. That would mean that the three angriest-sounding candidates—all of them political interlopers of a sort—will have turned both party establishments on their head. Can a non-establishment candidate use Iowa to propel their insurgent candidacy all the way to the White House?

Has this happened before? Yes, 40 years ago. “The people of this country,” Jimmy Carter said then, “want a fresh face, not one associated with a long series of mistakes made at the White House and on Capitol Hill.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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